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The Kennedy Center presents a star-studded production of the legendary Stephen Sondheim musical.

Ron Raines and Bernadette Peters in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
The energy in the lobby of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater was palpable on Saturday, May 21 as the creme de la creme of Washington, D.C. and New York -- social doyennes, industry insiders, theater luminaries (including Lonny Price, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Amy Spanger, Jim Caruso, Stephen Flaherty, and Ricky Ian Gordon) and critics from across the Eastern seaboard -- awaited the official opening of the latest production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's landmark 1971 musical, Follies.

And so the question once more hung in the air: Would this be the Follies of its many acolytes' long-held dreams? Well, truth be told, Eric Schaeffer's lavish production lacks some focus and clarity for too much of the first act. Nonetheless, this version delineates the spiritual dilemma of Follies' four central characters more sharply than any of the four previous productions I've seen (which, alas, does not include the legendary Broadway original) -- in large part due to the extraordinary work of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Danny Burstein. Ultimately, this Follies is both hopeful and heartbreaking, and worth a trip from wherever you might be.

Set at the first -- and last -- reunion of the members of the Weismann Follies, the show is a meditation on how what we remember -- and misremember -- not only haunts us, but defines us. In this case, memories of what might have been have derailed the lives of Follies' two central couples: former showgirls Phyllis Rogers (Maxwell) and Sally Durant (Peters) and their two husbands, bon vivant Benjamin Stone (Raines) and traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (Burstein), all of whom are now trapped in disastrous marriages.

Part of the genius of Follies is that we physically see the quartet's much-different youthful selves (Kirsten Scott, Lora Lee Gayer, Christian Delcroix, and Nick Verina), full of hope, ambition, and sheer stupidity -- making it easy to mourn the bitter, unhappy people they've become. The crux of their malaise derives from Sally's lifelong infatuation with Ben, which she rekindles -- with unpleasant results -- at the reunion, and Phyllis' seeming failure to live up to Ben's ambition and her own expectations.

Jan Maxwell in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
The foursome's inner selves are laid out in excruciating detail in the show's "Loveland" sequence at the end of act II, where each performs a vaudeville-like number that spells out their feelings. As might be expected, it is the production's high point -- thanks in part to Derek McLane's brilliant set design, Gregg Barnes' wonderfully evocative costumes, and, above all, the absolute joy of hearing Sondheim's score and Jonathan Tunick's brilliant orchestrations played by a 28-piece orchestra.

Peters may not be the most traditional casting for Sally, now an ultraneurotic housewife in Phoenix, but she exquisitely captures the character's unfathomable sadness and longing. It's a star turn, for sure, but one that brings attention to itself because of its truthfulness. Not surprisingly, her rendition of "Losing My Mind" is simply shattering.

Maxwell, statuesque and gorgeous, unleashes her razor-sharp verbal delivery and martini-dry wit with unerring accuracy, while also hinting consistently at Phyllis' almost-hidden vulnerability. Her take on the venomous "Could I Leave You?" is pitch-perfect, and she gives more than her all to "The Ballad of Lucy and Jesse" (although choreographer Warren Carlyle, try as he might, can't fully disguise the actress' lesser terpsichorean ability).

As great as these ladies are, they're matched here by their leading men, an all-too-rarity in Follies' productions. Burstein is simply a revelation as Buddy, because there appears to be no acting going on -- and nowhere does his connection with the character feel more evident than in the blistering "Buddy's Blues." Raines' magnificent baritone allows him to do full justice to Ben's numbers -- and his end-of-show-breakdown is almost terrifying in its realness.

One wishes the first act, in which many of the various other reunion participants show off their skills, was equally consistent. True, there are great moments: Elaine Paige brings down the house with a magnificently executed "I'm Still Here," which comes off as the anthem of a still-thriving survivor rather than a final summation of a long career; Linda Lavin stunningly reimagines "Broadway Baby" with jazz-tinged gusto; and Terri White receives deserved cheers for a full-bodied "Who's That Woman."

Unfortunately, MIchael Hayes' "Beautiful Girls" is a bit perfunctory, Susan Watson and Terrence Currier's "Rain on the Roof" lacks the needed charm; and Regine's "Ah, Paree," full of mangled lyrics and mushy direction, is basically a train wreck. Schaeffer also fails to give most of these numbers the context they need not to feel superfluous, and even jarring.

Yes, as Follies reminds us, true perfection may be an unattainable goal.